Editor’s note: The Ravalli Republic is publishing a month-long tribute to western Montanans who served in the Vietnam War, leading up to Veterans Day. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the war’s start.
At 6-foot-6, Greg Burham was a standout basketball player at Flathead High and Missoula Sentinel in the 1960s. As a Navy SEAL in Vietnam, “I was the biggest target in my platoon,” Burham said.
He served a seven-month tour in Vietnam with SEAL Team 2 in 1970 and early ’71, and returned to Missoula to finish his undergraduate and later a master’s degree in counseling at the University of Montana.
Burham spent 17 years as a juvenile probation officer in Missoula Youth Court. In 1994, he became a trauma counselor for combat veterans at the Missoula Veterans Center, retiring in 2007.
Q: Where in Vietnam did you fight?
A: We had all our operations in the (Mekong) delta. There were 44 provinces in South Vietnam and ... through Army intelligence we found out that ours (Chuong Thien) was 44th, or first depending on how you looked at it, in that 75-80 percent of everybody in the province were either Viet Cong or Viet Cong sympathizers. We had a lot of rocket and mortar attacks.
Q: What was your closest call?
A: Well, there was one gunfight when I didn’t have any cover. I was out on a dried rice paddy, laid down. I killed the first guy that started shooting at me. Then another guy popped up and he hit my M60 twice. My gun was shot up, and I was lucky that I only got burned by a couple of rounds and didn’t get hit. I was lucky I didn’t get killed.
Q: How did you escape?
A: One of my teammates was by the canal and said, “Greg, leave that damn burning weapon and get the hell out of there.” So I did. I was probably about 50 yards from cover. One of my officers after the operation asked if I’d gotten hit. I said no, I just got burned by a couple rounds. He said, “Do you want me to put you in for a Purple Heart?” I said no. Guys were getting killed and losing limbs and getting seriously wounded. I’m not going to get a Purple Heart. I don’t deserve one. I wasn’t even burned badly enough to get scars, for God’s sake.
Q: You got out of the Navy in 1972 and re-enrolled in college while the war was still going. What was that like?
A: I love the University of Montana, but in the early ’70s it was not a veteran-friendly environment. The only person you told that you were a veteran was another veteran. I understood the pro-peace, anti-war stuff, but the anti-military, anti-veteran crap, blaming us for the war. ... I volunteered to go to Vietnam, but I didn’t start the war. But there were professors who were going on and on about the anti-military, anti-veteran stuff. I had to bite my tongue. I never commented about any of that.
I was the only veteran I ever met at the university who had a job, too, at Sparta Health Spa. If you put Vietnam on a resume back in the early ’70s, forget getting hired. We were all supposed to be psychopaths and drug addicts and crazy. You probably remember the TV programs in the early ’70s and a lot of the movies. The villains and the perpetrators and the crazies were all Vietnam veterans. What the heck? You know, my dad and all my friends’ fathers were World War II veterans. And they were so honored for their service that I wanted to be in the military when I got old enough, so I could be honored like my father and my friends’ fathers were. ... Well, it didn’t work out that way for us when we first returned.
Q: What did the Vietnam War mean to you personally?
A: Well, I was really lucky to go with SEAL Team 2, I was really lucky to survive. I still have PTSD, but I was glad to be helping other combat veterans. When I was counseling at the vet center I had World War II combat veterans, Korean War veterans and Vietnam veterans and everything since.
Q: Do you still have flashbacks?
A: I have nightmares sometimes ... I still get some counseling for my PTSD. I see (mental health therapist) Dr. Tom Clucas just about every week. I needed to see him once 9/11 and the global war on terrorism started. But I really was glad to be here at the vet center and be here for these kids coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan.